To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t all that excited for Mafia III when it was announced. I rate ‘GTA clones’ on an admittedly limited scale: can I parachute out of a helicopter? No? Fuck it, then. But as the release date drew near, I decided I really needed a new open world to tool around in, wreaking havoc on its inhabitants.
I quickly realized that what I had thought would be at best a decent GTA imitation was instead something far more daring and stylish. I’ll get this out of the way: Mafia III is a refreshing, well-executed, and oftentimes brilliant accomplishment in just about every aspect other than the gameplay. The gameplay isn’t bad, per se; the shooting has some nice weight to it and my morbid obsession with quality death animations was satisfied, to say the least. But it doesn’t hold a candle to the bold story that takes a real crack at spotlighting the racism African-Americans have endured for… well, forever.
“Did that guard just call me ‘boy’?”
Whenever you start an Assassin’s Creed game, a title card appears that informs you that the game has been made by all people of shapes, colors, and sizes. At first you go, ‘Damn, they must get into some heavy shit to warrant that disclaimer!’ They don’t. Few games really do. Occasionally you’ll stumble across a well-crafted indie title like Papers, Please that unearths real emotions around real (enough) events. But Mafia III bombards you with it from the moment you gain control of Lincoln Clay, a black man returning from the Vietnam war to 1968 Louisiana.
“Did that guard just call me ‘boy’?”, I thought to myself in literally the first ten seconds of gameplay. I was mad. He didn’t know me from Adam, and yet he and his buddies sat there laughing and smoking cigarettes like they hadn’t just disrespected me. I strayed from the direction I knew the game wanted me to go and stared at the offender. “What you lookin’ at, boy?” Wow. Well, that fucking sucks. I started to head in the direction of the mission. As I walked away, I heard him make some sort of comment about the size of my balls. I was pissed. Pissed for Lincoln. And then it hit me: holy shit. I care about this guy. I care about this guy ten seconds into the game. I can’t tell you the last time that’s happened to me.
I didn’t really relax until I found myself driving along a rain-slicked road, listening to The Beach Boys, watching the golden Louisiana sun peek its head out from behind the end of the world. Fuck those guys, I thought; soon I’ll have a decent arsenal and they won’t be so quick to leer at me. I popped into a corner store to grab a health pack. This is something I really like about Mafia III’s gameplay. Health doesn’t regenerate, so instead you have to seek out restaurants, supermarkets, and gas stations to raid their medicine cabinets. It gives the game a ‘simulation’ feel that I much prefer over the standard arcade mechanics we’re used to nowadays. This particular store, unfortunately, had a large sign that read ‘No Coloreds Allowed.’
“All I wanted was to get this health pack, and now, just because I’m black, this has turned into a whole thing.”
“Like I give a fuck about that,” I muttered to no one in particular. I strolled right in and headed for the medicine cabinet. The bloated shopkeep piped up, “You better get outta’ here boy or there’s going to be trouble.” I paid him no mind as I injected myself with a health syringe. “That’s it,” he yelled, “I’m calling the cops!” Sirens blared in the distance. Fuck! All I wanted was to get this health pack, and now, just because I’m black, this has turned into a whole thing. It was then that I came to the conclusion that Mafia III got racism right. It’s not just ugly and wrong; it’s fucking annoying.
Developer Hangar 13’s most amazing accomplishment is that they’ve tackled an issue that’s front and center in our lives, on the news, and on social media, without it feeling like ‘gotcha gaming’ (just made that term up). Everything you experience in the game adds layers to Lincoln’s story and deepens your experience while you’re playing around in its world. There’s really no better feeling than plunging a knife into a dude’s throat 4+ times after he called me the N-word. And while I’m lucky enough to be able to turn off the game and return to being a non-harassed, non-victim-of-prejudice white man who will almost certainly survive any future law enforcement encounters, the game made me begin to understand black anger in a visceral way. It’s one thing to have a decent moral barometer and know, unequivocally, that something is ‘wrong’. It’s especially on display nowadays, as social media becomes a place where you’re encouraged/expected to input your morality as if it’s another space in the ‘About Me’ section. But for a videogame to not tell you what’s racist or what isn’t, but instead force you to live in a world with racism, is a big fucking difference. It’s a ballsy move on the developer’s part and one I strongly believe should not go unnoticed.
“In Mafia III, racism is another stat you have to manage, to be constantly aware of.”
In Mafia III, racism is another stat you have to manage, to be constantly aware of. “Okay, I can’t stop at this grocery store because that dick is gonna’ call the cops again, and I’m low on health as it is.” I never knew what that was like. I always believed my friends when they spoke about something terrible happening to them because they weren’t white, but I didn’t understand it. And maybe as a straight, white, cisgender guy I can’t ever really understand it, or any other serious prejudice, but playing Mafia III has gotten me closer than any thought-provoking essay or well-intentioned lecture. It’s not a string of isolated incidents, but rather a constantly humming undercurrent that affects every single decision you have to make. Social media didn’t show me that, and the news didn’t either. Mafia III did. Play it. You’ll learn something.